Bombastic, titanic, brutally imaginative and even occasionally subtle, God of War III is the latest, best reason for a gamer to save money and skip action movies. The better thrills are on a disc on my PlayStation 3.
Just five years since the first God of War comes God of War III, a game that sticks the landing of the grand technological leap beyond the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3. Tortured mortal Kratos is back to conclude a narrative trilogy that has energized one angry man to wreak vengeance on the heroes and villains of Greek mythology. You've got blades on the end of chains, wrapped to this man's wrists, a variety of moves to use and hordes of mythological beasts and beings to slay. At the beginning of this new game, in a moment set immediately after the end of God of War II, Kratos is scaling Mount Olympus on the back of Titans to eradicate the Greek pantheon, including its leader Zeus. That is an ambition quest, and ambition is the quality with which to measure this game — against movies, against games, against other God of Wars.
This PS3 exclusive, a stubbornly single-player action game in this era of seemingly mandatory multiplayer, is vicious and violent and built not without risk. God of War III is a sequel that is less innovative than its predecessors and one recklessly indulgent in game design cliches and possibly unwise homages to other games. It excites the same synapses as the best and most macho action movies, a clash of the Titans. But it is as a video game that it best be judged.
The First 10 Minutes: The first minutes of Half-Life 2 intrigue. The first minutes of Super Metroid unnerve. The first minutes of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Bros. may represent two facets of perfect fun. The opening playable sequence of God of War III is equally wowing, perhaps the most impressive controlled combat sequence to ever start a game. Extraordinarily, this sequence, worth experiencing fresh if you haven't heard about it already, is surpassed later in the game.
Titanic Struggles: God of War III's main innovation is the animation of some of its terrain. Some levels that would seem to take place in a forest or on a massive bridge actually are occurring on the backs and limbs of Titans, the largest characters I've ever seen in a game. They are sometimes our terrain, terrain the flexes and moves and turns our world upside down. They are sometimes, amazingly, background players, monsters in the distance that reach into the foreground to mess with us. They are also the best justification for owning a large and high-resolution a TV as possible. Witnessing spectacle at this scale is a reminder of how massive the mountains of reality and our imagination can be and how quaint the virtual worlds we've played in have been so far.
Extra Weapons: There is little surplus in Kratos' latest war of gods. This game presents a massive scale, but it has neither massive playtime other games may have nor the wasteful distractions its predecessor did. Kratos' journey sends him up and down the strata of Greek mythology, down to Hades and up to the palace of Zeus. On that journey, even when areas are returned to, little time feels wasted. Everywhere, Kratos is tasked with something new and interesting to do, one challenge at a time. Kratos is also armed with an expanding arsenal of powers and weapons, all of which feel relevant to the fiction and interesting to use. Most action games that offer a large arsenal assume players will specialize and allow a gamer to neglect the variety offered. God of War III expects and justifies the player's use of every last thing offered in the game, each square foot and each new blade or power worth experiencing.
Those God of War Cliches: It's a God of War, so Kratos will be growling a lot. He'll have extraordinary off-camera, semi-interactive sex. He'll have context-sensitive super-kills, doors that only open when the player mashes a button and experience points to gain and then spend leveling up weapons and abilities. I am not a fan of series cliches — trappings, as they can fittingly be called. God of War III adds far less to the series formula than it replicates. But, this time, it was hard to mind, because everything controls so well and passes so quickly. Plus, if you activate the sex scene for a second time (that's what pro reviewers do, you know), someone involved in the scene makes an ESRB (games rating board) joke. Fourth-wall-breaking, sure, but I can stand a game that acknowledges which buttons it is re-pressing and moves on.
Stuff That Shouldn't Have Worked, Worked: Maybe video game design progress was another failed myth. Forget player-controlled cameras, God of War still doesn't have one. This is a game with invisible walls that block Kratos from jumping and dashing to places it looks like he should go (but the designers don't want you to take him to). In an era of immersive games, this game risks embarrassment for retaining the series' use of the illusion-shattering appearance of button-prompts. Many millions spent on rendering Greek mythology, so convincingly that you think you can smell Hercules' armpits, are potentially ruined by the appearance of PS3 thumbsticks on the TV. They are there to let you know it's time to press them or twirl them, probably to provoke some brutal beast-killing move. Theoretically they and the lack of camera control and the invisible walls should be the archaic ruin of this game. No. They instead make the case that following the developers' mandates, proceeding on the prescribed path and doing what one is told, can make for the most exciting of thrill rides. Choice and progress be damned to Hades.
Subtle Touches: Once in a while the God of War III developers get so experimental you might think their artsy neighbors who made poetry-game Flower snuck in and added some grace to the grunt of this production. But let's give the God of War III folks the benefit of the doubt that they are responsible for the game's spare but impressive experiments with perspective and control. To give one vague example, there is a moment when Kratos needs to walk toward a blinding light. The game's camera suddenly closes in tightly on Kratos' back, one of his arms extended, palm spread, to block the light. The player will soon realize that the only way to make Kratos advance is to use a PS3 control stick to keep Kratos hand in front of the light. The controls of the game have been changed for this one sequence, the struggle redefined. Other, smarter moments like these appear just often enough to signal that God of War III isn't just a game for manly men, but for manly men who can appreciate a dash of subtle artistry.
The Best Bosses: I've not battled and bulldozed a more interesting set of bosses since I cleared Metal Gear Solid 3. Each of God of War III's bosses, until its disappointing final one, are imaginative and impressive spectacles. Some are a test of combat strategy and endurance; others are semi-interactive cut-scenes. Most are superb and like little else you've played before.
Something About Yourself: How angry are you? By the end of God of War III, you will know.
Reading: Occasionally, Kratos can stop and read. Why? To teach the player about where in the mythology he is. In these moments, the game's voice-acting is replaced with text-reading and the player is finally given camera control, but only on a swivel so a vista can be observed from beyond a book where Kratos has stopped to read. These should be the vista moments, the time to stop the car, get out, stretch legs and smell the mountain air. Instead, they are the clunky moments that are begun and ended with unintuitive button prompts and turn our hero from a convincing man of wrath to a dull tourist. God of War III has much that is magnificent to look at; it is unfortunate that the designers couldn't find a better way to compel gamers to pause and take it all in.
Decline Of The God: God of War III peaks, but after an amazing ante-upping sequence of excellent action and puzzle-based levels, it leaves its best moments behind. The game, as svelte as it is and as clear of time-wasting tedium as it should be praised for being, nevertheless glides through a less interesting final third. Be prepared to be amazed by this game, but be prepared to be left a little hungry at the end.
How thrilling can a summer blockbuster movie be for those whose hearts have withstood the rush of God of War III? Not very much, I think. Action games are at risk of seemingly equally outclassed. God of War III ends quickly and with a surprisingly artful finale, and, yes, it offers the ability to replay it in a harder mode or with new difficulty and power tweaks. It has a few tough new timed challenges too. But it does boldly risk the trade-in or the sell-back after its 10-hour adventure has been finished. It risks being a game you'd play once and then move on. But it is a game, more so than any I've played in a long time, that feels unforgettable — unforgettable minute after minute so that you won't even forget the mid-boss you tackled in hour three or the block-pushing puzzle in hour eight. Credit the exclusion of repetitious sequences or uninteresting goals and the inclusion of well-controlled spectacle.
This is a game that is so mighty in its expression, so loudly in your face, so boldly an advertisement of the power of the PlayStation 3, that it leaves its mark, punches its impression in your memory and seems too good to chuck. This game shows off and gets it right. It is an Olympic achievement, worthy of Kratos' burning drive.
God of War III was developed by Sony Santa Monica and published by Sony Computer Entertainment of America for the PS3 on March 16. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Yes, I played its sex game a few times. I also upgraded all but one of the weapons to the maximum and enjoyed slaying all but one of the gods.
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